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While Israel had hoped to pull its last troops out of Lebanon by the end of the week, talks between IDF officers, representatives of the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL broke down Tuesday, threatening to delay a complete withdrawal indefinitely.
A source in Northern Command said the talks at UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura, north of Rosh Hanikra, had failed, adding that the IDF had told the other parties it would stay in Lebanon until UNIFIL "took its job seriously.
Brig.-Gen. Udi Dekel, head of the IDF Strategic Planning Division, led the delegation that met with UNIFIL commander Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini and representatives of the Lebanese army (LAF).
"We told UNIFIL that we plan to pull our troops out of Lebanon by Yom Kippur, although we haven't committed to a specific year," a high-ranking IDF officer said after the meeting.
The talks broke down when the Israelis demanded that UNIFIL adopt more aggressive rules of engagement. What particularly angered the IDF officers was an interview Pellegrini gave The Jerusalem Post last week in which he said the peacekeeping force would not actively engage Hizbullah guerrillas, even if they were in the midst of an attack against Israel.
The officers even presented Pellegrini with a copy of the interview at the meeting and confronted him with his comments, which they said were in direct contradiction to previous understandings and interpretations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
"We demand more effective rules of engagement," the high-ranking IDF officer said. "If they don't adopt them, we are prepared to stay in Lebanon for as long as necessary."
In a statement to the press, Pellegrini said the meeting was "constructive."
"It is my belief that with the necessary cooperation by both parties we should see the IDF leave south Lebanon by the end of this month," he said.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz backed up Pellegrini's projection, telling the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the IDF would pull its troops out of Lebanon by next week.
An officer who participated in the talks on Tuesday said the IDF was waiting for answers from the Lebanese army and UNIFIL, and would only decide when the remaining troops would leave Lebanon after they were received. He predicted that by the middle of next week, there would be no IDF troops in Lebanon.
The officer said the IDF would accompany UNIFIL and assist in implementing Resolution 1701 by directing it to possible Hizbullah threats. UNIFIL, the officer said, viewed its primary role as assisting the Lebanese in engaging Hizbullah, without doing so on its own. A representative of UNIFIL will be stationed at the Northern Command to coordinate with the IDF.
"UNIFIL is supposed to help the LAF do their job," the IDF officer said. "We have not seen examples of how this works. We hope it does."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defended the decision to accept Resolution 1701, despite UNIFIL's announcement that it would not attempt to dismantle Hizbullah.
"I think it is a slow process, and sometimes some of the UNIFIL people - Pellegrini and others - because of all kinds of complex political considerations don't want to announce publicly that which might irritate some," he told the Post Monday. "But at the same time, when you look at the field and see what is going on, you see the reality is that you don't see Hizbullah any place."
In response to reports suggesting that the UNIFIL forces are very limited in what they can do, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said, "It is clear UNIFIL has the authority to intervene if the Lebanese army is not in a position to do so, when there are violations of the resolution."
"The basic point [of the peacekeeping force] is to assist the Lebanese army," said Farhan Haq, Annan's associate spokesman. "The point is having a zone where the only weapons held are by the Lebanese army or UNIFIL, so the force has a mandate to make sure the resolution is enforced."
UN officials said the peacekeeping force in Lebanon was still in the process of establishing a liaison with the Lebanese army, something they said would be crucial to implementation of Resolution 1701.
Lt.-Gen. Giovanni Ridino, recently appointed by Annan to head a Strategic Military Cell that will provide guidance to UNIFIL, is in Lebanon to discuss how to further implement the resolution. The cell will be located at United Nations headquarters in New York.
There are currently 5,000 UNIFIL personnel in Lebanon out of the planned 15,000. Dujarric said a big deployment of troops would come in a few weeks. German naval units will bring the numbers close to 12,000, he said, adding, "But UNIFIL is already quite operational."
By Monday, the IDF had transferred control of 95 percent of Lebanon to the Lebanese army via UNIFIL. Several hundred IDF soldiers were still inside Lebanon, although only several hundred meters from the UN-drawn Blue Line border with Israel.
The IDF officer said the Lebanese army had deployed 15,000 soldiers in southern Lebanon, some of whom were already stationed along the Blue Line at Naqoura and north of Kiryat Shmona. The officer said the soldiers were patrolling known Hizbullah strongholds and were checking cars at roadblocks on main roads to prevent the transfer of weapons.